Britain to change libel laws

Free expression fans are happy that the British libel laws are getting an overhaul.

One of the big items is so-called “libel tourism.” This has been a growing concern. Foreigners have been using British courts and libel laws to attack critics  when the complaints have little connection to Britain.

The practice has had a chilling effect on authors, journalists and bloggers who try to publish sensitive material about companies, wealthy individuals or anyone with enough money to launch a lawsuit. (And people think the US is litigious.)

It seems that truth will actually play a role in the libel law reforms.

Under U.S. libel law, as I understand it, truth is an absolute defense against libel or slander. In other words, if I can prove that John Smith is a lying, tax-cheating bigamist, he cannot sue me for libel.

Under existing British law, however, (and this extends to many of the Commonwealth countries and Hong Kong), if a person can prove that words as printed have the potential to be harmful, he can sue for libel.

So, if that same John Smith mentioned above can show that even one person will think less of him because of what I print, and even if I can prove he is a lying, tax-cheating bigamist, he can sue me.

I saw this happen regularly in Hong Kong. A newspaper of questionable ethical standards would sue anyone and everyone who criticized the paper for its poor journalism. The paper just as regularly lost its cases — the judges would often dismiss the complaints as nuisance cases — but it would cost the critic loads of money in legal fees. So eventually people were afraid to complain about the paper.

Nice step forward U.K.

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